Twitter’s Misguided Approach to Poverty and Homelessness

Digital Literacy=SuccessIn a misguided notion that homeless people need tech skills to become self-sufficient,  Twitter is doubling with a non-profit that serves 5,000 families (majority single mothers and children), at risk and homeless–to establish a learning center in San Francisco, “The NeighborNest.” Twitter employees will tutor homeless adults, so as to “learn, connect, and grow together”. It just opened. This is happening despite a new Bridge at Main center that opened just this winter nearby at the San Francisco Public Library which has numerous computer literacy opportunities for homeless adults and other groups. The library, a civic engagement institution has a very different approach, seeing learning in multiple modalities, and including different forms of literacy and integrating populations. According to Project Read Director, Randy Weaver, there are over 100 tutors and numerous digital literacy, financial literacy and health literacy projects in this city and county funded program.  There are also other great long-term tech programs for the homeless that are run by non-profits such as the Tenderloin Technology Lab, with digital inclusion as its aim. Yet Twitter is trying to build its reputation as a more effective online ramp for the city’s poor.

Twitter has been pressured since they opened in San Francisco to “give back” to city residents “by contributing to the neighborhood” (only one article needs to be read since most say the same thing aside from Kurt Wagner’s piece—see as an example of puff pieces— written after I sent the Gate this blog) as a deal to compensate for the years of receiving millions in tax breaks from the city. As the Twitter blog promotes, they have a “commitment to San Francisco.” But so does practically every company in San Francisco (for example, real estate firm, Transwestern,) much of this  “relationship marketing” as part of trying to own public spaces. Twitter in fact relies on this notion of “commitment” to ensure that all customers return to tweet, which in turn, is a marketing strategy for all of those users too. This trust branding makes it seem as if Twitter is a public institution serving, what Twitter hopes to showcase as a “force for good.” In other words, a “public good” that is in Twitter’s private interest.

They have a BFF community benefit agreement that will offer “the nest” a computer lab, classes and resources  “to help them [homeless adults] on their path to a bright hopeful future” and which is considered a type of pilot for wider outreach to youth, school-based groups, and other members of the community. The CEO of Twitter announced: that he is “committed to transforming lives right here in the neighborhood where we work” (SF Gate)—that is, where Twitter was given property rights and passed the burden on to its employees.  These employees, and perhaps other volunteers will be expected to tutor these homeless adults.  Instead of a scenario, like one Business Insider article cited: “San Francisco’s Twitter Employees Must Step Past All These Homeless People To Get To Work” they will have to tutor them. BTW although these employees are said to get catered breakfasts and lunches as well as yoga classes, Twitter has a terrible record on diversity-so bad there is currently a class action law suit and Twitter’s response. These employees may wonder if their community engagement will lead to promotions. Probably not. Perhaps Twitter expects its women employees to do most of the “service” work—this wouldn’t be surprising…

Since I can’t help but wonder how the mostly entitled male workforce (mostly white) at Twitter — will “buy into”  or be able, with their long hours and unfamiliarity with the population, to tutor the majority women (and persons of color) that the non-profit serves on a long-term basis,  even after it’s been dubbed as a “safe place” for Twitter workers (rather than for the clients).  Twitter’s gentrified presence in the neighborhood will probably not only make it safer, but a more costly area.

Without a full range of comprehensive training, these employees will be late-night operators transmitting mostly technical skills (such as an informational navigation session). Although I have attempted to find out more about Twitter’s program, the Twitter press office has been quiet. This is what they told me: “I can point you to what we’ve said publicly, but we aren’t releasing any details about the programming until we open, since we are still working out the details. ” The questions I asked a few weeks ago were:

  1. Who is in charge of the programming (of the NeighborNest) and can I have their contact information to interview that person(s)?
  2. How will you get volunteers from Twitter to tutor at the Learning Center (what is your recruiting going to be like, if at all) and the requirements for tutoring?
  3. What will be the approach to tutoring/learning and what exactly will tutors and the adults do with one another for example, will it be 1-1 or group learning?
  4. Why isn’t there childcare provided, and just a “play area? (you can see a bias here!)
  5. In what ways will it pose a threat or compliment the community technology type programs existing around the city, including the public library? (Yemila Alvarez, Community Engagement head of the SFPL told me Twitter did check out library programs)
  6. Is there going to be an evaluation of the program?

My sense is that Twitter will be getting the nest programming together by its coat tails at the last minute. Most likely they’ll tweet curriculum, like this nieghbornest “community navigation” powerpoint for poor families–with the over-repeated informational and technical advice such as “search for thousands of community resources in your neighborhood–get the help you need:”

neighbornest tweet

neighbornest tweet


Wait a minute, don’t libraries do this?  And if Twitter is not totally successful here (after all, homeless families need more than information from privatized sources), the company may change directions depending on the initial outcomes— their accountability is limited, and although there is now a building, it could easily be turned into another Twitter “nest” for employees in the future.

The corporate approach of using computer technical skills for poverty reduction is not wholly dissimilar to government sponsored welfare-to-work programs since the 1990s focused on individual skill improvement through technology to “level the playing field” and foster self-sufficiency. This belief in digital literacy as a magic button that in being pressed will rocket poor people into the new economy and society is omnipresent.

Yet research has proven this perception wrong. Virgina Eubanks, in a case study of low-income women in a non-profit  in her book, Digital Dead-ends, showed that the women already had digital literacy skills but lacked social capital and opportunities to earn much more than the minimum wage. Their low wages, not their skills, prevented them from reaching their potential as they were cycling in survival mode. Likewise in a study by Lorna Rivera, illustrated in, Laboring to Learn, she found that racism and sexism were prevalent as obstacles to the homeless women in her study transitioning into mainstream society than skills alone.

Recent research has shown that what is most effective for homeless people are not these individual skills, but a stable home-see importantly this article. In fact housing the homeless is a better foundation for developing a sense of security and social and economic mobility (see for example, the Low-income Housing Institute in Seattle which offers the homeless homes and social and educational services). While I don’t want to pose solutions or even one solution over another and it’s clear that a multi-pronged approach is important to homelessness (the Compass Clara House program houses only 13 families for up to 2 years) , it is also clear that asking homeless people what they want and designing opportunities around these needs is essential. Clearly the biggest thing homeless people need is a place to live. In Salt Lake City and in other cities around the country, they are indeed designing housing for the homeless (see Mother Jones).

Therefore Twitter, with city government sponsorship, should consider using its new  3 million dollar project to house the people it has displaced, that is poor families in San Francisco—which to no surprise, would be more expensive than a learning center. Or, they should hire these newly trained poor female clients, at Twitter, at the same salaries as their powerful young white male tutors, so they can actually afford a home in the inflated housing market in SF.

While telecommunication/social media giants are fascinated by how highly mobile and very marginalized populations like homeless adults and teens or migrant workers use technology (for example here here, and here )  as part of finding new markets, the focus should instead be on their stability. Although attempting to develop, what one recent article characterized as a “comfortable” and “homier space” the new learning center is called a “nest” as if people, like birds, are supposed to move in and out, after laying their virtual golden eggs. See for example the branding with the bird house and the twitter bird:

Twitter NeighborNest branding-jpg

But is this really enough?


3 thoughts on “Twitter’s Misguided Approach to Poverty and Homelessness

  1. May I suggest that you familiarize yourself with what the City of SanFrancisco has accomplished in building permanent housing of outstanding quality in design for homeless people with mental
    issues including in house medical services . Depending on the level of mental disorders I see no
    problem with Twitter offering learning opportunities for residents of these fully staffed facilities.
    There is still much progress needed in filling the need for permanent housing for homeless people.
    Twitter’s offer to teach those capable of learning is to be applauded. Discounting their efforts
    as just another ‘high tech’ gimmick is not a productive response to a very challenging issue.


  2. Thanks Sue for your comment here. I would like to remind you that although the facility may be built by Twitter as part of its community benefits agreement it is the volunteers that are making it run—these are Twitter employers, (again) volunteering their time to tutor homeless families—they are not being paid to tutor them. And I would also add that this NeighborNest deal is most definitely part of Twitter’s marketing and this is no gimmick. I also want to remind you that the public libraries offer very similar services—why doesn’t Twitter simply donate its money to the public libraries like other philanthropists have in the past? Last but not least, you talk about homeless families as if they are mentally ill rather than pushed out by the city’s brokering of deals with tech companies that displace residents and make housing unaffordable.


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